By Lisa Guernsey and Sonia Harmon
Walk into Minnesota New Country School and you won't see hallways or classrooms, just a single 8,500-square-foot atrium. Nor will you find a principal or hear bells. A recipe for chaos? Not here. At this faculty-run cooperative of 109 students and seven "advisers" (the preferred term for teachers), the emphasis is on independent learning, with students creating the curriculum and choosing the advisers who will guide them on personal projects. The day begins with large-group discussions of the news and expectations for the week. Then kids disperse to work at their own pace, sometimes spending hours in the computer corner, woodworking shop or art studio. Only math classes are communal, taught in groups of about 15. A 45-minute period each day is set aside for reading.
The rural school, which opened in 1994, is the flagship for EdVisions, a nonprofit promoting self-directed learning. This model has now been replicated in more than 50 locations. MNCS, which the Department of Education has lauded for its success in closing the achievement gap, has attracted an almost fanatical following among Minnesota families, with some students traveling as far as 100 miles a day, round-trip, to attend.